Unaka Prong: Kudzu | ★★★ | [self-released; July 23]

The song with vocals that works best on Kudzu is “Fishing Report.”

The tune finishes the first half of the fourth album from Unaka Prong, a self-proclaimed “genre-bending jazz fusion and progressive rock” quintet that started in Boone before moving to Durham.

Atop strung-out psych-funk that staggers and skronks, singer and guitarist Daniel Stevenson throws on a playful country accent and plays the role of an online fishing expert. He unspools into despair about his wife leaving as he attempts to advise fellow anglers: “I get so lonely sometimes. All I have now are my fish, my beautiful fish. I’ve mastered catching them, holding them so tight, they can never leave me, not like the others.”

It’s ridiculous but affecting, its absurdity and poignance reinforced by the music. The problem with Kudzu is that this is the only time the vocals and instrumentals are so well matched.

Unaka Prong is a gifted ensemble, ably mutating from delicate jazz flourishes to muscular funk to brightly atmospheric indie rock. The album’s three instrumentals are dynamic and engaging, perfect for burning one down and letting the music take you.

But the three singers (Stevenson, drummer John Hargett, and bassist Jonathon Sale) have voices that feel nondescript by comparison. When Unaka Prong meets them halfway, the songs work. “Phenobarbital,” a cosmic country lament about seizures, lets Stevenson flex his gritty twang. “Shifty,” a bristling bit of garage rock scuzz, lets Sale sing with abandon.

More often, though, the vocals feel misplaced. Stevenson’s blunt delivery can’t match the band’s roiling tension on “Sam the Inventor”—the song explodes into colorful life during the awesome instrumental outro. “On My Own” is a spirited rocker, but it cranks down for Sale’s verses, foregrounding the song’s least interesting sound.

Unaka Prong has all the components to be a truly invigorating band. Kudzu just doesn’t assemble them quite right. 

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